Have you ever wondered why Jesus only complimented two individuals in Scripture stories for their “great faith”? Here is the surprise element: neither one was a Jewish person! One was a man (a Roman centurion) and the other was a pagan woman (a Canaanite).
In today’s story from Matthew 15:21-28, a Canaanite mother is described as pleading with Jesus to cure her daughter who seems to be possessed by a demon. Since Jesus’ primary ministry was to the House of Israel, he slips into one of the idioms of the day – really a negative stereotype – to point out that fact to the woman. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Today we might think that is a very harsh attitude; but we forget our own use of stereotypes or clichés that sound harsh to other cultures. For example: In America Catholics were sometimes called “mackerel snappers”; Queenslanders were often called “Banana Benders.”; Jewish merchants were stereotyped as greedy (cf. Shakespeare’s character “Shylock”); and the list goes on. Some name-calling was very rude; at other times it was simply cultural banter. The culture that Jesus lived in was no exception. However, Jesus recognises the woman’s sharpness to reply “in kind.” Picking up on the food metaphor, she uses it herself to prove a point: there is plenty of food to go around, even for dogs. However, like Jesus, she wasn’t referring to nutrition, nor to animals. She was referring metaphorically to the power that Jesus possessed to heal, and to the needs of her daughter. Jesus noted the woman’s correct insight, and granted her request because of her “great” faith.
We can draw an excellent lesson from this exchange between Jesus and the woman. It’s this: don’t fence Jesus into a yard about what he can’t or won’t do. If you have a need, take it to him. He alone is worthy, but he reads our hearts and responds accordingly. Have faith! The woman in today’s gospel recognised in Jesus the messianic power attributed to the awaited “Son of David.” If you truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, then trust him and fashion your prayer requests accordingly.